Even the most alert readers are having trouble decoding the mixed messages heard at the recent policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the famed pro-Israel lobbying organization. We watched the crowned heads of Washington and Jerusalem rise to proclaim the undying friendship between our two nations and then bicker over the most basic questions while 7,000 citizen-lobbyists looked on in uncomfortable silence. Should friends keep their disagreements private? Should Israel freeze all construction over the 1967 border? And when the secretary of state shows up at the most influential Jewish convention of the year and delivers a scolding, should the audience sit silent?
Others will offer political, psychological, even religious explanations of the Lobby. We’re going to look at the physics of the thing. It’s not an easy concept to grasp, but it’s important. It’s the key that unlocks all the other impenetrables.
It’s a lot like the physics you learned in high school, but with less math. Also, there’s no test.
The fundamental principle of AIPAC — the First Law of the Lobby, as it were — is that like bodies attract. At least, they should. AIPAC’s first duty is to make sure they do, using its weight and energy to keep the like bodies, the American and Israeli governments, closely aligned.
The Second Law of the Lobby is that unlike bodies repel. And so AIPAC’s second main duty is to repel bodies it doesn’t like, to shield Israel resolutely from its enemies, to tell the world just whom we’re dealing with.
Applying these principles to the actions of nations and governments, we get the Lobby’s Laws of Motion. When the American and Israeli governments are aligned, moving in the same direction and diligently repelling enemies, as they were during the Republican-Likud years of Ronald Reagan and Yitzhak Shamir, or under George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon, considerable energy is generated. AIPAC is then a body at rest, sizzling with potential energy.
When the two nations’ joint movement is not toward waging war but extending the hand in peace — as in the Clinton-Rabin years — the outcome is slightly different. AIPAC approves, but it becomes unsettled and bored. Its stored-up potential energy is dissipated in random spurts as it casts around for someone to pick a fight with or to threaten with an aid cut-off. These motions create friction, generating heat in Jerusalem. Israel doesn’t like it when it’s trying to lower the barriers around it and finds AIPAC putting them back up.
Far more heat is generated when America is trying to lower the barriers separating old enemies and Israel isn’t ready. AIPAC then directs all available force against Washington to restore its alignment with Israel. This is best illustrated by the presidency of the elder George “Lonely Little Guy Against Powerful Political Forces” Bush and his secretary of state, James “F!@*k the Jews, They Don’t Vote for Us Anyway” Baker. They tried to push Israel irresistibly into peace negotiations with the Palestinians but ran up against Israel’s immovable Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. When Bush came to shove, AIPAC pushed back. The collision released explosive energy, and within a year both Bush and Shamir had fallen from power.
Given those rules, we should expect that the current confrontation between the Obama administration in Washington and the Netanyahu government in Jerusalem would be a replay of the Bush-Shamir smackdown. We should expect to be seeing the same mobilization of Jews around the country, the same angry rhetoric at AIPAC’s national gathering, the same flood of donations from around the country into the coffers of the president’s opponents. But that’s not happening this time.
Why not? Again, it’s physics. When Newton’s apple fell on his head, the force of impact was a factor of mass and velocity — that is, how heavy the apple was and how fast it was falling. The speed of the fall, of course, is determined by the distance the apple travels. But impact is also affected by other factors that aren’t in Newton’s equations. The shape of the falling object can affect the amount of air resistance, or what aviators call “drag.” So can weather conditions: Humidity and barometric pressure can make the air thicker and harder to slice through.
The same principles apply to AIPAC. A president who’s just won a historic victory by passing health care reform, succeeding where other presidents have failed for a century, has a lot of momentum going for him. He’s barreling forward at high speed. Stopping him would require a daunting amount of force. On top of that, it’s hard to mount a credible threat, such as backing the opposition in the midterm elections this fall. It’s hard to mobilize Jews to back Republicans under the best of circumstances, and well-nigh impossible when the Republican field is as full of creationists and tea-partiers as today’s GOP. The shape of the GOP creates resistance.
At the same time, the global environment isn’t as favorable for stiff Israeli resistance as it was in Shamir’s day. Israel is more isolated in 2010 and more dependent on American support. Its claim that it doesn’t have a credible Palestinian partner has fewer takers. And there’s a growing sense of urgency. Time is running out on the two-state solution, because of changes in demography as well as land-use. Impatience over the deadlock and fear of what might come next are growing, on the Arab street, in Western capitals and even in the Pentagon.
Israel and its allies don’t operate in a vacuum. They’re subject to the same natural laws of motion and force as everyone else.
Contact J.J. Goldberg at firstname.lastname@example.org and read his blog at (blogs.forward.com/jj-goldberg)[http://blogs.forward.com/jj-goldberg)
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).